Conference discusses keeping water on the land

As a people, we need to look at fresh water as a valued asset, not something to be flushed down the river

To flood or not to flood, and will spring ever come? Those were the thoughts on many minds as we entered Canada Water Week. Held annually on the third week of March to coincide with World Water Day on March 22, the Manitoba Eco-network celebrated with a conference in Brandon entitled “Keeping Water on the Land.”

With large snow accumulations in eastern Saskatchewan, western Manitoba, and revised flood forecasts from the U.S. Weather Service, this may be one spring when we will be unable to keep water off the land.

People still dealing with the 2011 flood won’t want to hear this, but Brandon Mayor Shari Decter-Hirst vocalized what a lot of people have feared. This could be the year that both the Red and Assiniboine rivers flood at the same time.

Factors still working in our favour are the dry soils, lack of frost in the ground, and forecasts for a continuing slow melt with cool weather, but the closer we get to April, the likelihood of a rapid melt increases. We often talk about the intensity of summer rains and acknowledge the damages a fast deluge can cause, but spring melts also have a degree of intensity. And intensity is everything.

The billion-dollar flood of 2011 comes on the heels of some extensive drainage projects upstream and has focused attention on landscape management. Greg Bruce from Ducks Unlimited Canada described our country’s wetlands as the kidneys of our watersheds, and called for the protection of existing wetlands.

He argued that the ongoing drainage of wetlands is not only increasing the amount of water being dumped into the drainage system, but increasing the nutrient movement as well. If we continue to flush out lowland areas that have withheld nutrients for hundreds of years, those nutrients will end up in our major lakes of Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg.

His concerns are supported by AAFC’s data from the Tobacco Creek Model Watershed where small dams on the escarpment have reduced peak flows and flooding, and the dams act as nutrient sinks capable of holding back 10 to 20 per cent of the nutrients in the waterway. If the construction of artificial wetlands can benefit the waterway, then the converse is most likely true when they are removed.

The call for action was echoed by Co-operator editor Laura Rance who described the human cost of flooding. While governments begrudgingly add up the expenses of floods like 1997 and 2011, many people are still reeling from their losses that will never be recovered. Rance noted that cities are protected and flooding is essentially a rural issue. Rural people may have to show the initiative to deal with it. At some point we need to move beyond paying for the damages of the last flood, and start investing in flood mitigation before the next one happens.

We are reminded that while the agricultural landscape is in the business of producing food, we also share that landscape with future generations. How they eat, how they produce food, and how they live will be determined by the legacy we leave behind. That landscape needs to be developed in such a manner that we can sustain the times of excess water, and save it for the next drought when we know we will need it.

While Canada is said to be home to about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, only about seven per cent is available for our use. Much of that water is tied up in lake bottoms, deep aquifers and glaciers. In short, it is still a valuable commodity and its perceived abundance should not be taken for granted. While our freshwater supplies continue to flow north into Hudson’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, most of our population lives in the south where reserves are highly in demand and often stressed. As a people, we need to look at fresh water as a valued asset, not something to be flushed down the river.

The sentiments of the meeting may have been summarized best by Conservative MLA Ian Wishart. He acknowledged that while the province has made improvements to the licensing of both drainage and retention projects, much more needs to be done. Exactly what more remains to be seen, but the masses are becoming very concerned about the impacts of what the weather patterns are throwing at us.

Until we can assist and streamline projects that retain water on landscape to the point that they are easier to build than drainage ditches, we are going to continue to see drainage outweigh retention by a factor of 10. Ultimately that means more flooding, more expensive damages, and higher tax costs to deal with the issue. We can pay now, or we can pay later, but rest assured we will be paying. Floods are not getting cheaper.

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